Unlike their Buncombe County counterparts, Asheville city officials didn’t give a firm figure by which residents could expect their property tax rates to increase in the coming fiscal year. But to fund a growing list of priorities for the 2021-22 annual operating budget, city staffers suggested, some additional revenue will be needed.
Tony McDowell, the city’s new finance director, ran down some of those projected expenses for Asheville City Council during an April 27 budget work session. Major costs include approximately $1.15 million to fill vacant positions impacted by Asheville’s current hiring freeze; $700,000 in additional employee retirement contributions set by the state; $488,000 to staff a new fire station under construction on Broadway; $380,000 in economic incentive agreements with area businesses; $300,000 to support a cost increase for the city’s recycling contract; and $180,000 to maintain body-worn cameras used by the Asheville Police Department.
Those figures don’t include any expansion of city services, added Taylor Floyd, Asheville’s budget manager. A list presented to Council cited $10.2 million in new projects, a number City Manager Debra Campbell said is likely lower than their true costs.
Full implementation of a city employee compensation study, which Council designated a key priority at its recent retreat, would cost $7.8 million, Floyd said. Working with the county to consolidate 911 calls will cost at least $1 million, and continuing to implement the city’s Transit Master Plan will likewise add more than $1 million to expenditures.
Approximately $300,000 will be needed to fund the planning and community engagement phase of the city’s reparations work, Floyd continued. Expenses for the early phases include stipends for members of an eventual Reparations Commission, hiring facilitators and purchasing food for participants if meetings occur in person, Campbell said.
Without additional revenue, it will “definitely be hard for us to do all these things,” Campbell said. Council member Gwen Wisler suggested using the city’s reserves to cover one-time costs like the new fire station or a down payment on a reparations fund, the latter of which is not included in the current budget proposals. The Reparations Commission is expected to address funding by January 2022, Campbell responded, with reparations funding requests to be incorporated in the 2022-23 budget.
Divesting from the Asheville Police Department would free up funds for reparations or long-term neighborhood investments to reimagine public safety, said Council member Kim Roney. Neighborhoods are currently slated to get $50,000 in small-scale grants in the 2021-22 budget.
Buncombe County has already proposed an effective property tax rate increase of 2.1 cents per $100 of valuation. Just because the county was the first to float an increase, Wisler emphasized, the city shouldn’t hesitate to consider one as well.
The property tax rate needed to produce the same total revenue for the city after Buncombe’s recently completed reappraisal would come to 38.3 cents per $100. Every one-cent increase above that rate would generate an additional $1.9 million for the city, McDowell said.
The first draft of the 2021-22 operating budget will go before Council on Tuesday, May 25. A public hearing will occur on Tuesday, June 11; Council will vote on the final document Tuesday, June 22.
In other news
Council also unanimously passed a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting residents in private employment and public accommodations based on 16 personal characteristics and lifestyles, including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. The ordinance mirrors a policy adopted April 20 by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
“I want to congratulate this community for being in a new place today,” said Mayor Esther Manheimer. “I know not everyone is in the same place, but there are a lot more people in support than there were 10, 20, 30 years ago. This is an exciting moment for Asheville.”